To celebrate their 110th birthday in May, Hellas Verona, one of Italy’s oldest clubs, booked the city’s Roman amphitheatre in Piazza Bra. Players from past and present, including members of the 1985 Scudetto-winning side and other famous butei, or ‘lads’ in local dialect, who had worn gialloblu over the years from Claudio Caniggia and Joe Jordan to Angelo Peruzzi and Pippo Inzaghi were all invited to attend, as were 12,000 supporters.
It promised to be a special night in Hellas' history and became even more so in light of events a couple of days earlier. A stalemate with Empoli proved enough for them to finish runners-up in Serie B and clinch an automatic promotion place. "We’ve just left hell," cried the stadium announcer at the Bentegodi. After 11 years outside the top flight, Hellas were back.
A banner unfurled in the Curva Sud thanked former president Giovanni Martinelli under whom the club's resurrection had started in 2008. At the time, Hellas were touching the void. They’d required a play-off against Pro Patria to avoid relegation to Italy's fourth division and there were even proposals for the club to merge with Chievo. Martinelli wasn't prepared to let that happen. Hellas had too proud a history for that, a history Chievo could only dream of.
It’d be a long road back, but Martinelli and the fans resolved to go it alone. Fusing with Chievo was anathema to them. They'd do anything but that.
The appointment of Andrea Mandorlini, a member of Giovanni Trapattoni's relentless teutonic Inter side that won the Scudetto in 1989, has come to represent a major turning point in their recent history. After hanging up his boots, he’d established himself as a relatively successful coach in the lower reaches of the Italian game. Mandorlini guided La Spezia to Serie C1 in 2000. Then four years later, he got Atalanta into Serie A.
His past at Inter meant he was supposedly considered for the position as Jose Mourinho's assistant on the Special One's arrival in the dug out at San Siro. Considering himself to be a No.1 and not a No.2, Mandorlini took the Cluj job instead. Though he won the league in Romania, he was rather unceremoniously dismissed after a poor start to his title defence. Offered the chance to return to Italy with Hellas, Mandorlini accepted and so went from coaching in the Champions League to the Lega Pro. Talk about a comedown.
Or was it? Through the hard times, the average attendance at the Bentegodi for Hellas games never fell below 10,000. This was a big club. And like a sleeping giant, Hellas just needed reawakening from a bad dream. Promotion to Serie B via the play-offs came in Mandorlini's first season. Following four years in the third division, it was a liberation.
There was a big party. During the festivities, Mandorlini led the players and fans in song. The chant was an infamous one, long thought of as discriminatory towards people from the south of Italy and it was aimed at the opponents Hellas had knocked out in the play-offs: Sorrento and Salernitana.
This was the first of a number of controversies involving Mandorlini, each one serving to make him a figure of disdain outside of Verona but an idol among Hellas supporters. That status, however, was only consolidated by repeated success.
So close to making it back-to-back promotions, defeat to Varese in the play-off semi-finals led to some soul searching. It was a decade since a Hellas team featuring future World Cup winners Alberto Gilardino, Mauro Camoranesi and Massimo Oddo had gone down. Would the club ever return? Mandorlini insisted that, with hard work, they would.
Maurizio Setti, a former kitman and club photographer at Carpi, who subsequently started a successful women's fashion house that turns over 70 million euros (£60m) a year, decided to put some of his money into the club. One of the investors who saved Bologna a couple of years ago, his benevolence extended to keeping the popular Martinelli on as vice-president. So the conditions for Hellas to succeed were there and succeed they did. But not without drama.
Ahead of a match against Livorno a year ago, Mandorlini claimed he was proud to be their "enemy" on account of their rivalry with his former employers La Spezia. It unnecessarily inflamed tensions. A section of Hellas' travelling support sang disgraceful songs insulting the memory of Piermario Morosini, the Livorno midfielder who had collapsed and died of arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy during a match against Pescara six months earlier.
As Hellas scored to make it 2-0, Mandorlini raised a middle finger to the Livorno fans. He'd later make the cuckold gesture to those of Cittadella too. Those incidents would bring touchline bans and 57,000 euros in fines. Some asked whether Mandorlini was more trouble than he was worth?
Defeats to local rivals Vicenza and then Novara in the spring almost cost the 52-year-old his job, but Hellas kept the faith and it was repaid in another promotion, the one they'd waited for since 2002. It was the best possible present ahead of the club's 110th birthday, which, to those asking, falls on May 20.
That is also the day of another of the defining moments of Hellas' history, for it was then in 1973 that they beat Nereo Rocco’s Milan 5-3 on the final day of the season. Fatal Verona, the papers called it. Had Milan won, they would have claimed a 10th Scudetto and earned the right to wear a commemorative star on their shirts. Instead, Juventus overtook them at the last.
Hellas' coach that day, Giancarlo Cade, who’d also been in charge of the Mantova side that overcame Helenio Herrera’s Inter, the recently crowned champions of Europe, in the last game of the 1966-67 campaign, thus allowing Juventus to again sneak past and pip another of their rivals to the Scudetto with just seconds of the season to spare, unfortunately died on Monday. Not before watching Hellas prove fatal to Milan once more, though.
Retained in his position despite reports that Setti wanted to bring in Devis Mangia on the back of the former Palermo coach taking Italy to the final of the Under-21 European Championship, Mandorlini gave the owner every indication he’d made the right decision.
Hellas came back from behind to beat Milan at the Bentegodi on the opening day of the season in Serie A with a brace from summer signing Luca Toni. After being taken apart by an irresistible Roma side a week later, Hellas then won again in front of their own fans, claiming victory over fellow promoted club Sassuolo. They were unlucky to lose away to Juventus after going in front and got a draw at Torino before extending their perfect record at the Bentegodi with a win on Livorno’s visit to Verona.
Sunday's 4-1 triumph on the road at Bologna, the kick off of which was delayed after ugly clashes outside the ground, (authorities have today searched the houses of a number of Hellas ultras), was their first at the Dall’Ara in 35 years. It also made this Hellas' best start since they won the Scudetto. Up in fifth place, they were last this high in the table on March 13, 1988.
The revelation of the season so far in Serie A, there's a nice blend to this team. Hellas have youngsters of great promise like Jorginho, who has been linked with Liverpool, Ezequiel Cirigliano - 'the new Mascherano' - and the much hyped Juan Iturbe - on loan from Porto with a couple of goals in his last two appearances. Then there’s top flight experience in Toni, but also Massimo Donati, Bosko Jankovic and Marco Donadel. There’s spirit and a sense of identity too. Goalkeeper Rafael and captain Domenico Maietta have been with the club since they were down in the third division.
Of course no one expects Hellas to be where they are now at the end of the season. The objective, as Toni says, is to get to 40 points as soon as possible and then see what happens.
For now, though, there’s satisfaction to be had in the natural order of things realigning to reflect who's the biggest club in Verona. Chievo's rise coincided with Hellas' fall. That was certainly tough to take. But now Chievo are just outside the relegation zone and Hellas inside the Europa League places. To fans of the more storied club, that’s how it should be. November's derby sure promises to be a great spectacle.
A lot can change in the meantime. But this Hellas team has captured the imagination. Were she to see it from her balcony, Juliet herself might even fall in love with it.
James Horncastle | Follow on Twitter